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Mobtown Beat

West Side Story

Union Square residents take sides over shuttered corner market

Photo: Edward Ericson Jr., License: N/A

Edward Ericson Jr.

Yemen Grocery: the closing of the corner store has divided the neighborhood.

The Health Department has shut down a corner market on the west side, reportedly the first time it has taken such action in many years, adding fuel to ongoing disputes in the neighborhood.

Citing “blatant disregard . . . concerning proper disposal of trash,” the Baltimore City Health Department has permanently revoked the food-service facility license for Yemen Grocery Corporation, a convenience store tucked into a three-story residential building at the corner of West Lombard and Calhoun Streets in Union Square.

“According to Department of Health staff, this is the first and only revocation of a food license that they can recall in at least the past 15 years, possibly longer,” says Mary Alice Ernish, a neighbor.

Ernish, her husband, and a small group of neighbors took on the store, which they claimed was derelict, over the objection of their community association, sewing some hard feelings in the neighborhood while perhaps setting a precedent for other activists to follow.

“The story is about a year and a half of my time and my life,” says Dr. Salvatore Seeley, who bought a home two doors away from the store about two years ago. “About six months into it, I started noticing that the store was becoming a nuisance; people leaving and throwing their trash out in the street . . . it was ending up in my yard.

“Then they decided to go 24 hours a day.”

Trash and rats gave way to nighttime drug activity and sex workers, Seeley says. During a six-day power outage, the store was open and selling stuff out of the warming freezer case, he says: “I can’t begin to tell you the dramas we had with this store.”

The store is owned by Kassim Hafeed, who neighbors say has operated the store there for many years and lives either in the building or across the street. Yemen Grocery Corporation was founded in August of 2010, according to state tax records. The store previously operated under the name Five Star. Christopher Taylor, president of the Union Square Association, is not a fan of the store or the people who got it closed down.

“I have no use for that store. I don’t like either of the guys that run it—but it’s their livelihood,” Taylor says.

Taylor says he can’t stand Ernish and her “little clique.” He says the association, which has more than 100 dues-paying members, did not aid in the effort against Yemen Grocery for a good reason. “I never had a mandate to shut down the store, ever,” he says. “If you took a poll of the neighborhood, most people don’t have a problem with the store. They frequent the store.”

A neighbor of the store who asked not to be named says it was a shame it was closed. “Every time he makes an improvement, it’s closed again,” the neighbor says. “The store is really not that awful. Really. It’s much cleaner than it was 30 years ago.”

The neighbor says she knows the proprietor as “Mohammed” and shares two phone numbers. Neither one works. Hafeed’s lawyer, David B. Woo, did not return City Paper’s calls before press time. A call to a city official involved in the case, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Environmental Health Mary Beth Haller, was also not returned in time.

The store’s food permit was suspended for 30 days last spring, during which time the owner was told to “work with legal counsel to update and modify the facility’s corporate records to reflect current owners and officers of the corporation,” to hire a private trash hauler, and to reapply for the food permit under his own name, according to the “Findings and recommendations” of the Health Department. He was also ordered to clean the outside of the facility every hour, not open during power outages, and stay closed for at least 14 days more if repeat violations are found.

On Sept. 5, an employee of the store was found dumping store trash in the cans in Union Square Park. The store was ordered closed for 14 days in September.

Neighbors found the store open at night, according to the Health Department’s findings. They took pictures.

At an Oct. 5 administrative hearing, Hafeed said that he did not get a trash contract because of “economic hardship” resulting from the previous 30-day suspension. Hafeed said his store was not open during the September suspension but that his employee was in the store for “security purposes,” according to the findings. He also testified that his trash “was stolen from the dumpster and that the thief put it in Union Square Park.”

Hafeed has 30 days from the date of the shutdown to file an appeal in court. It was unclear at press time whether he intended to do that.

“He has every right to appeal. We’re enjoying our victory for now,” says Seeley. He adds that the fight has taken a toll: “It is really sad. Because I’ve lost really good friends in this community by fighting this. I was just told we were ‘thwarting democracy’ yesterday.”

Taylor says they are, in fact, thwarting democracy. “I just don’t understand why this particular building was singled out,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s any marvelous victory for our neighborhood. I mean, what’s gonna go in there next? And what about all the anger and dissension you sew in the neighborhood?”

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